At the request of large industrial polluters and under the label of regulatory reform, North Carolina legislators have fashioned a bill, House Bill 952, that will undercut the state air toxics program and weaken its protection of the health and well-being of all North Carolinians. To protect families and children from toxic chemicals in the air we breathe, representatives should defeat this ill-advised legislation.
Former Republican Gov. Jim Martin signed into law an air toxics program in 1989. State leaders gave the program a clear and simple purpose: prohibit industries from emitting levels of toxic pollution in the air beyond their fence lines that science shows endanger our health. Data from recent advances in medical science links exposure to toxic air pollution to fetal death, cancer, pediatric respiratory disease, adult respiratory and cardiac disease and premature death.
Changes in brain structure and cognitive function of the same type seen in Alzheimers disease have now been found in children and young adults who have had ongoing exposure to elevated levels of air pollutants. Children, pregnant women and seniors are at risk for serious health problems if the air they breathe is contaminated by nearby industrial emissions.
As reported in this weeks Journal of the American Medical Association, Charlotte has the lamentable distinction of being second only to Los Angeles in the level of fine particles which can cause serious damage to the heart and blood vessels.
We cannot choose the air we breathe in communities where we live, work and play. Polluting industries have the choice, means and ability to control their toxic emissions. Polluters should not be allowed to endanger our health for their convenience. There is no scientific or medical basis for weakening these rules. The result would be increased medical costs and suffering for families.
The bill exempts facilities that require federal pollution controls from the need to comply with the health-based state limits, including the largest toxic polluters responsible for most of the harmful air emissions in the state. The problem with exempting these facilities from the state program is that the federal requirements control only the amount of pollution at the smokestack, and are not designed to ensure the air is healthy to breathe.
Instead of the states current health-based limit on toxic air pollution, industrial polluters and political supporters of the proposed bill would substitute a loophole-ridden process that allows state regulators to review permit applications to see if the facilitys emission presents an unnecessary risk to public health. But what an unnecessary risk to public health means is not defined in the bill and there is no requirement that polluting companies provide information on their toxic air emissions to even make such a determination.
Unless a toxic chemical is on a federal list that does not include all of the known hazardous pollutants covered by the current state program, the bill says it does not have to be disclosed to the public. Moreover, there is no requirement that the facility provide the expected concentration of any toxic chemical in the air people are actually breathing into their lungs.
So, under this bill, the state regulator will not even have enough information to determine whether the health risk meets its undefined standard of unnecessary.
In contrast, the existing program is straightforward common sense based on science and public health. If a facility emits toxic chemicals on the state list, it must disclose the amount. If it is over a threshold limit, the facility must show that it is meeting health-based standards for the air people breathe around the facility.
Nothing more is expected. And nothing less should be accepted.
Several of the largest toxic air polluters pushed for this legislation with letters to legislators, as this newspaper reported. According to an analysis by Democracy North Carolina, companies that could benefit from weakening these health protections contributed over $5 million to legislators over the past two years. Politicians should be ashamed to support a bill that allows those big polluters to put more known poisons and carcinogens into the air we breathe.
Toxic air emissions are a serious health concern in North Carolina. Our state is ranked in the top 10 states with the highest emissions of toxic air pollution from power plants. These are among the types of pollution sources the new law would exempt.
Our families lives and health are priceless and should be a priority for our elected representatives. We expect and deserve to breathe air that is safe free from dangerous levels of toxic chemicals. North Carolina has some of the best medical facilities and practitioners in the country, but even they cant save us from legislators bent on playing politics with public health.
The General Assembly should leave the state air toxics program alone.
Larry Raymond, M.D., is director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Carolinas HealthCare in Charlotte. David T. Tayloe Jr., M.D., is with Goldsboro Pediatrics and has served as president the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as its North Carolina chapter.